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E&C Leaders Urge Facebook to Practice Transparency and Work with NYU Program Conducting Political Advertising Research

Oct 30, 2020
Press Release

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg today urging him to work collaboratively with New York University (NYU) researchers in their effort to improve transparency and accountability in political advertising.

NYU researchers created a tool called the NYU Ad Observer, wherein volunteers give the researchers access to the political advertisements they see on Facebook. Researchers and journalists use the data to investigate who is targeted by political advertisements and why, in an effort to hold both advertisers and Facebook accountable. Just weeks before Election Day, the social media company sent a letter to NYU demanding it cease the operation.

“The unfortunate timing of a letter from Facebook to the NYU Ad Observatory, which runs the Ad Observer tool, just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, raises concerns about Facebook’s commitment to election integrity,” wrote Pallone, Doyle and Schakowsky. 

Facebook’s letter reportedly asserts that ending NYU’s research is necessary to protect consumer privacy. However, Pallone, Doyle and Schakowsky point out that the NYU Ad Observatory has taken concrete steps to protect consumer privacy and urged Facebook to work with the researchers to address any concerns. The data made public by the NYU Ad Observatory fulfills a critical, unmet need by providing researchers and the public with timely, vital transparency into how political ads are being targeted at Americans.

“In just the past two weeks, journalists have used NYU Ad Observatory data in at least nine separate reports. This data is crucial for holding both advertisers and Facebook accountable. It has been used to reveal gaps in the enforcement of Facebook’s advertising policies,” the three Committee leaders wrote, citing how the data helped reveal an issue wherein certain political ads have been allowed to run on the site despite the advertisers failing to disclose who paid for them.

They continued: “Facebook is notorious for its repeated and willful failures to be transparent and lack of interest in working with outside researchers. […] We urge you to work collaboratively with the NYU Ad Observatory to achieve the goals of increased transparency and accountability in political advertising while protecting consumer privacy. Greater transparency is needed on the Facebook platform into how individuals are being targeted by political advertisements. Only then can Facebook regain the trust of the American people.”

The full letter is available HERE.